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Google’s refusal to obey a Department of Justice subpoena for information about searches for porn is – you would think – perfect grist for the little opinion mill we’re running here.
And you’re right. But talking at length about the issue goes to the heart of our business – as a Silicon Valley-based Web 2.0 start-up. Like many others working on the web, we depend on Google for many services. Some writers use Gmail. We buy and sell advertising via Google. We use it for searches to add context to what we do. There’s other stuff, as well, and there will be more in the future as we grow and Google gets more savvy about how it offers people editorial on-line and on its site. So talking about Google’s approach to dealing with the government as well as that of its competitors (with whom we also do business deals) presents with a classic conflict of interest: If we are critical of the companies in public it may well hurt our business relationship with them. If we are guided by what we think they’d like us to say – to preserve that relationship – well, it might damage your respect for us because we’ve pulled our punches.
So, first let me say that I’d really love to have some one else write and comment regularly here at Spot-on on business and politics, specifically the tech business. As we go through this second mini-bubble, the political dilemmas are going to be drawn in sharp and clear focus and as this company’s main deal-maker, I should not be doing this particular editorial job. If you’d like a gig writing about that or know someone who does – we will be adding writers pretty steadily through the summer – send me a note. It’s a great opportunity for the right writer and you don’t need to be here in California.
But back to Google. In the absence of another set of hands, I’ll do the commenting for now. This is a very important story in no small part because it breaks at the same time that the Department of Justice is also saying that the president has full legal authority to authorize secret eavesdropping and wiretaps. The concentration of that kind of power in one office of government is not a good thing; that this administration continues to grab for information about individual’s private lives and habits is well past disturbing.
I have to say that I’m honestly surprised that Google has decided to engage in this show-down. One of the reasons I have steadfastly refused to use Google’s GMail is because I don’t trust that corporation – or any other – to maintain my privacy. When you’re in the business of keeping secrets and not telling people where or how you get information, having private email is a good, good thing. And I know enough and am grossly cynical about Silicon Valley and its business people to know that in circumstances where the choice is business or principle, business is gonna win. As The New York Times story observed: If Google loses its court battle, it will, in fact comply with the subpoena.

That’s not to say Google is run by nasty folks or spineless creeps. It’s not. But it has investors and shareholders and they have made those investments for one reason: To make money. The more the better. It’s safe to say that’s why America OnLine (owned by Time Warner), Microsoft and Yahoo have not objected as strenuously to giving the government information. It is why those companies comply with requests for information from foreign governments that we here in this country would – or should – consider illegal. Generally speaking – unless you’re in the news business and even then you better have a good lawyer – picking fights with the government in not good for business.
But then Google’s business depends on it having our trust – as a business and as individuals. In the long run, it is good for business for them to have this fight. The politics of its management and investors – they in many respects embody that group I call Progressive Libertarians – also offer a sense of how the company feels about the Bush Administration. Not good is a good enough description for now. So we have an interesting moment to contemplate here; the Silicon Valley and the Administration have squared off – over porn, of course – and it’s not clear who’s going to win. It would be nice to say this is a slam-dunk for Google. But it’s not.
This is more troubling because the government is making – in the Google case – an argument no different in theory than the one it makes for wiretapping: We are doing this to protect you. The Justice Department wants information about porn searches so it can shore up a much-dismissed law; it says it is protecting children. In listening to phone conversations without court supervision, the government says the same thing: We are protecting you from terrorists.
The issue here isn’t protection. It never is. It’s about control. Who gets to say what’s safe on the Internet and when it can be read, said, heard or seen? The issue is how much and under what circumstances should the government be allowed to interfere in our on-line lives, and our lives are increasingly being lived on-line. Unless, of course, you hold elected office in Washington. There, well, there the Internet is a scary place fllled with things good Americans hate and fear: Porn, bloggers who will say anything and terrorists who will do anything.
It’s more than unfortunate that this conversation has to take place in the courts; its rightful location is in Congress where there should be open and free debate. But with an administration led by a man who talks about “the Internets,” a Democratic Party led by a woman who has publicly speculated that the government should control what’s on the net and who has called for federal controls on video game content, and a Republican Party that places cronyism – your ability to pay for the legislation outcome you want – ahead of policy debate, that’s simply not going to happen.
So, we are left, those of us working on the web, to cheer on Google. But we know – they’ve told us – their fight will only go so far.

Share  Posted by Chris Nolan at 10:47 AM | Permalink

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